Esmeralda replaced the phone in its cradle.
She hadn't said a word in the entire twenty-minute conversation, and her perfectly heart shaped face had remained smooth and expressionless.
During such a long period of time, Nicky had got distracted and started counting things; but Bracken was more alert and was consequentially considerably freaked out by the behaviour of their host. The woman was like a life-sized version of one of those collectable porcelain dolls - cold, unfeeling, and owner of a lot of wavy hair. She might have been pretty, but there was nothing else going on there. Maybe it was all the years of science.
"It's not the years of science," Esmeralda told her, which was disconcerting.
"What? I didn’t-"
"Save it. I know what you were thinking.” Esmeralda advanced on her intimidatingly. “I'm an expert on brains, Bracken,” she whispered, putting her nose right up against Bracken’s cheek. “Human brains. Like the one you have."
"I can't argue with that," Bracken agreed, a hint of a smile playing around her soft lips as though remembering memories past, "I do have a human brain."
"Exactly. You were looking at me when I was on the phone, impassive like that, even though I was receiving bad news-"
"That's not important right now."
"Oh right. Sorry, please continue."
She nodded graciously.
"Thanks, I will.
You were watching me, standing there in my work environment, not reacting to what I was hearing down the phone in any way for twenty minutes."
"I thought maybe you'd gone to sleep standing up," Nicky volunteered.
"You would think that," Esmeralda pointed out coolly, "but Bracken didn't, did you?"
"No," she admitted, "I can honestly say that never crossed my mind."
"Swot," Nicky grinned, sticking his tongue out at them both.
"ANYWAY," continued Esmeralda, not angrily but just a bit louder to get their attention, "you were watching me and thinking about my brain chat and the fact I was able to ditch the love of my life for no reason better than money. And you thought maybe science was to blame, because like so many you were no good at it in school and now you hate and fear it as a consequence."
"I got a 3 for standard grade," Bracken said, "that's alright."
"It doesn't denote a particular aptitude for the subject like what I have though."
"Spose not, no."
"You had some notion that the constant consideration of variables, attempts to prove and disprove things, and a world view at odds with the spiritual or emotional led to my detachment," Esmeralda surmised. "I was so interested in the process of literally dissecting people's minds and memories that I forgot to consider what goes on in their hearts. That's right isn't it?"
"I guess that was a theme," Bracken concurred uncertainly, running a hand through her hair. It needed a wash.
"Well you're WRONG," Esmeralda said triumphantly, "that's not my motivation at all."
"Years of science has been my saviour," she steamrollered on, little caring about Bracken's honest disinterest. All she wanted to hear about was her relationship to the wean, or lack thereof.
"Abandoned by my parents and sister, I was left to fend for myself in London when I was just four years old."
"That's terrible," Bracken said, pricking her ears up sincerely, "I'm so sorry."
"Well, they left me with a foster family," Esmeralda corrected herself, "but they smelled weird. And they kept my sister! So I ran away to find her."
"That's so weird," Bracken exclaimed, "why keep one and not the other?"
"The doctor didn't tell them they were going to have twins. They didn't want two babies."
"Did they not have enough money to bring up two?"
"Oh no, that wasn’t it," she said derisively. "They were rolling in it. Don't you remember what a long posh name I have?"
"Well, that could just be an affectation," Bracken pointed out.
"I suppose so. But it isn't. My family is way posh. Posher than God.”
“Is God posh?”
“I don’t know,” she waved away the question impatiently, “it’s just an expression.”
“I don’t think it is,” Nicky said helpfully.
“Fine, it’s not,” Esmeralda was heading towards something approaching irritation for the first time in ages, “but you know what I was trying to convey so will you please stop nit picking and let me explain.”
Nicky made the sign where you pretend to zip your mouth closed, then sat on his hands to make extra sure that he couldn’t renege on his unzipping and interrupt again.
“My parents were very wealthy, but also very lazy. They only kept my sister because having a kid was the in thing to do at the time. She was looked after by nannies, in the main, and rarely saw them.”
“How do you know?” Bracken asked.
“How do I know what?”
“How do you know she was looked after by nannies if you were given away to foster parents when you were only four? Did you find her after you ran away?”
“No,” Esmeralda reported darkly, “I found only heartache and sadness. It was as though I was living in a Bonnie Tyler album, only less fun.”
Bracken didn’t think this was a particularly great analogy, and would have left it out, herself, but she let it pass.
“I met my sister again, years later, and we exchanged notes on a few things.”
“So where is she now?”
Esmeralda looked pained.
“Gone,” she said.
“Gone?” Bracken’s suspicions were roused by the tone of face, and the look on her voice. “Gone as in travelling? Or gone as in dead?”
“The latter,” she replied.
“Well,” Esmeralda said, “I accidentally killed her.”
Had Bracken been eating or drinking anything, this was the revelation that would probably have made her choke. But she wasn’t, so it was fine.
“Come again,” she managed.
“Well I was very angry,” Esmeralda said vaguely, as if that made it alright, “and she’d been so annoying, refusing to swap memories with me and so on as per usual.”
“You wanted to swap memories?”
“Only for a little while. Just to see if it could be done. I would have put them back again.”
“What if you couldn’t remember how?”
“That’s what she said. Amongst other, less pragmatic things. She said I was mental, and that I had to stop poking around inside other people’s heads like that. She called it invasive, and weird.”
“Well, she may have had a point there.”
“Let’s agree to disagree on that score, shall we. So where even was this? Did she come out to Peru to find you?”
“No, she was there by pure coincidence, as it goes. She was doing some research for her postgraduate thesis – she was a scientist too. We were really very alike, as identical twins sometimes are.”
“So what, you just bumped into each other at random?”
“Yes. It was at a gas station, I remember. I was leaving and she was coming in through the door, and it was like looking into a mirror. Then right away I realized that it must be my sister. She didn’t really remember me, though. Our parents told her I had died.”
“Your parents sound like really great people,” Bracken said sarcastically.
“Tell me about it. So anyhoo, I told her I wasn’t dead, and she came to stay with me for a while. We told each other all about our lives and our work, and it turned out we had kind of been living in parallel. She was doing some stuff about whether cats remember coyotes… something like that. She used to carry around this big scrapbook with identikit pictures of coyotes in for cats to recognize. I think what I’ve been doing is a little more high brow, to be honest.”
“Well, your stuff might have benefits I guess, for like coma patients or something,” Bracken stretched her imagination. “Hers sounds kind of… made up.”
“I think it was,” Esmeralda nodded. “She struck me as the type who would flirt her way through academia, rather than putting in the work.”
“Unlike your good seld.”
“Very unlike me. I dedicate most of my waking life to my work.”
“Which reminds me-”
“We’ll get to your story in a second,” she soothed, “I thought you wanted to hear about how I killed my sister?”
‘Only if it’ll help me assess how likely you are to kill me as well,’ Bracken thought.
“I wanted to do the memory swap, and initially she agreed – although to be fair we’d consumed a lot of tequila that night. But when it came to it, I don’t know… I’d prepared the solution that we needed to take – hers would knock her out whereas mine was a different dosage so that I could operate on us both prior to the hypnosis – ”
By this point Nicky was really struggling to keep a lid on his hands. He really wanted to metaphorically unzip his mouth and let a deluge of questions flood forth.
“You didn’t do the hypnosis first?” Bracken asked, trying to piece the whole bizarre mess together in her mind.
“No, I needed to be alert for the surgery.”
“And what’s involved in the surgery?”
“Just a small incision, and then I put a little flake of metal in a particular spot on the brain so that the nerve endings are disrupted and a kind of blockage is created.”
“Then I close up – a paper stitch is needed in some cases – and embark upon a session of hypnotherapy where I implant memories in the other person.”
“But you said you wanted to swap. Who would implant her memories into your brain?”
“Well she would, once she was me.”
“Once she was you?”
“Once she had my memories, I mean.”
“Surely there’s no way you could impart all the required medical and scientific knowledge through one session?”
“Well I don’t know, because she bailed on me. But I thought I had it all worked out. We’d been preparing for a while – she listened to CDs of my memories when she was going to sleep at night, for example, and she’d sat in on some of my sessions with other people.”
“This all seems wildly implausible,” Bracken couldn’t help saying.
“She said that as well,” Esmeralda remembered through gritted teeth and angry, downward pointing eyebrows.
“Sounds like she and I would have gotten on alright.”
“Oh,” Esmeralda exclaimed, “you don’t know the half of it.”